Idaho river

Salmon and Steelhead Fishing in Central Idaho

The Rivers of Central Idaho Stand Out, Even in the Fishing Capital of the West

Robert Deen

The rivers of Central Idaho offer some of the best fishing in a state known for world-class fishing, but you have to work to get to there. Idaho is sparsely populated, the fishing is a long drive from major Central IdahoWest Coast population centers and there are few major airports.

Central Idaho has three distinct fisheries.  One is the Clearwater River, with the Selway and Potlatch tributaries.  Another is the Snake River, particularly the famous Hells Canyon.  Further east is the Salmon River.

To the surprise of many, these rivers are best known for top-notch salmon and steelhead fishing.  Surprising because Idaho is a long way from the Pacific Ocean.  Chinooks, sockeye salmon and steelhead must travel more than 900 miles and climb nearly 7,000 feet as they return to Idaho to spawn.

The Clearwater River flows above and below the reservoir formed by Dworshak Dam.  This is an area steeped in history – Lewis and Clark passed through here.  Much of the Clearwater flows through the Nez Perce Indian Reservation (see the Nez Perce web site for fishing permits).

Ironically, numerous trout have been caught in the Clearwater that easily broke the 20-pound state record for rainbow trout – including a 28 pounder caught this past January.  But because state regulations mandate the release of any trout over 20 inches in the Clearwater, none have been able to satisfy the requirement of being weighed on a state certified scale.  One such fish, well over twenty pounds and identified by the Fish & Game department from photographs, was caught and released three times!

Numerous guides operate out of nearby Lewiston, which has an airport (LWS).  The small town of Orofino is at the heart of the Clearwater country, and guiding services are available there.

The Selway River is a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, which it joins in the Clearwater National Forest.  One of the first rivers to be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, its headwaters are in the Bitterroot Mountains.  It’s a world-class rafting destination, and fishing from a drift boat or raft is often the only option.  Fly-fishing for cutthroat trout is the main attraction.  It isn’t unusual to catch and release 50 fish a day, up to 18 inches in length.  The river is catch and release only, with barbless hooks required.

Hells Canyon on the Snake River combines outstanding fishing with incredible scenery.  South of Lewiston, Idaho, Hells Canyon is a 10-mile wide canyon located along the border of Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington and Western Idaho.  Designated a “wild and scenic river,” the Snake roars through the deepest river gorge in North America, and jet boats are the guides’ choice.  The action includes winter steelhead, fall king salmon, smallmouth bass, several trout species, and sturgeon that average 6 to 8 feet.  Some guides combine steelhead fishing with chukar hunts on the canyon’s steep basalt slopes.

Southeast of the Clearwater country and centered around the small town of Riggins, the Salmon River and its forks are best known for steelhead and king salmon.  Wild trout are abundant too however, including rainbows, cutthroat and an occasional Dolly Varden.

Riggins is at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.  It is a three-hour drive north from Boise, the state capitol.  Don’t expect to see many people, and be prepared for some awesome scenery.

Central Idaho is guaranteed to win the heart of any angler; the fishing is great and the scenery incredible.  But do your planning and figure to invest serious time and effort, because it isn’t for the weekend warriors.

Nez Perce Fishing Permits

Hells Canyon Visitors Center

Riggins, Idaho

Lewiston, Idaho

Orofino, Idaho

Clearwater National Forest



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